One of the most frequently asked questions in the world of behavior is this: Is it possible to teach kids empathy?
Is empathy a learned skill or a biological inheritance? Can the feeling of empathy be taught or is the behavior only imitated? Is it developed in the brain during formative years? Is there a point in development when it becomes impossible to grasp? Which area of the brain allows children to empathize? How can we exercise that area of the brain? What happens when that area of the brain is damaged or underdeveloped?
Answering these questions can help us understand what we should expect from children, how we can help them, and why they might be missing certain skills.
The ability to empathize with other people comes from a couple areas in the middle of the brain, which allow humans to “mirror” what they witness in others. In the same way a child could see an adult clap for the first time and then imitate it, they can also see an emotion happening in someone else and imitate that feeling (or “mirror” it). It’s an automatic response in the brain that stimulates the body into feeling something.
The difficult part about how this area of the brain develops is that it’s dependent upon nurturance from caregivers. If a child doesn’t experience comfort, love, or nurturance from caregivers as often as necessary, the area of their brain in charge of empathy doesn’t have the “nutrition” it needs to grow.
How could a child compartmentalize emotions into different categories if it never witness a variety of emotions in others? How could a child mirror emotions if it never sees them?
Children who are born into neglectful or abusive environments don’t get enough emotional interaction. This prevents them from learning which emotions are appropriate for which situations. In fact, they often don’t learn to emote AT ALL. They first learn to soothe themselves, but then they learn to shut off their emotions entirely, in order to survive. Their emotional responses become stunted, and they eventually categorize people into resources rather than opportunities for connection or comfort.
So how do we teach empathy to children who might not have learned it naturally as infants? Is it even possible?
One of the most encouraging things about the human brain is that it never stops growing or changing. If long-term, appropriate treatment is applied to trauma victims, the brain actually has the chance to repair. And if it can’t be repaired, it can learn new ways to adapt to its damaged pieces.
For example, music therapy has been proven in recent years to help brain messages travel around damaged neural pathways, as opposed to becoming stuck on them. Other studies that have been done on children who have Reactive Attachment Disorder have shown that for every month a child is exposed to trauma, it requires an entire year to rewire the brain back to a “normal” level of functioning. That might sound discouraging to some, but to those of us in the behavioral field, it means healing is POSSIBLE.
And if healing is possible, then teaching empathy might be possible, even after the window of development has passed.
We can teach kids (both trauma victims and non-trauma victims) how to be empathetic by:
– Allowing them to see us during painful moments and discussing it with them afterward
– Pointing out when other people are feeling certain emotions
– Teaching them how to match certain facial expressions to certain emotions
– Asking critical thinking questions such as, “Why do you think that person feels angry right now?”
– Making eye contact with them as often as possible (studies show that eye contact with a caregiver stimulates brain growth with areas that control emotion)
– Asking them, “What do you think your face looks like right now? It looks sad. Do you think that’s true?”
– Playing role-playing games with them through the use of dolls, puppets, or dollhouses (use this opportunity to discuss emotions the “character” is having)
– Teaching them how to behave in empathetic ways, even if they don’t feel the emotion; there is a connection between learned responses and the development of emotions
– Behave in empathetic ways as an example to them, as often as you can
Even if you can’t implement all of these tools, and even if you don’t see progress for years upon years, it’s still worth the effort. We have a communal responsibility (particularly as parents and educators) to teach children skills that will help them interact with the world around them. Even if they aren’t able to absorb the information at the same rate as other children because of prior trauma, we still need to teach it.
Go teach some empathy, y’all.